Canelo Alvarez will fight Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a man who has never lost, and Canelo won’t win, like he has in every previous fight of his career. He will lose. Most of the record-breaking audience for the fight knows this; or, if they don’t acknowledge it openly, they know it intrinsically. To some extent, it’s about Canelo, the “undefeated” fighter who has never really beaten someone in even the same solar system as Floyd, much less on the same planet.
Jay Caspian Kang wrote an excellent piece on how much of Canelo’s supposedly boundless fame is actually media manipulation, and even if Kang is off in his read of the situation — and to be clear, I don’t think he is — it’s impossible to deny that the Mexican television station Televisa has played an essential role in creating the figure that booked this fight against Floyd.
On the other side of the ring, however, there’s no such hollow vessel. Floyd Mayweather is a great fighter; not just great at what he does but great in the sense of legends. And that’s the reason why, despite Canelo’s potential inadequacy for the task, and despite the likelihood of the result, this fight is so anticipated. It isn’t so much about Canelo, no matter what the narratives advanced beforehand suggest; it isn’t about whether he can win. It’s about whether anyone, any human being who does what he does, can challenge Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Look to the NBA for a parallel. To anyone who has an even passing familiarity with the game of basketball, it’s clear that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. There is no aspect of the game of basketball that he does not execute almost flawlessly; by all indications, he works hard and his teammates like him. He is so good that the last two seasons of the NBA played out in the unlikeliest of ways: they went as predicted by everyone who made a prediction.
Sport is, at its most basic, surprising. Because of the nature of the games, and the nature of the people playing the games, what happens rarely happens in the way it’s expected to happen. And the legends of the sport are legends as much for the fact that they fulfill expectations as anything else. If you are so good that you can force the game to unfold the way that everyone thinks it will, then you’re truly good.
LeBron is that good. And because basketball is a team sport, LeBron plays with a bunch of other guys, also very good, who help him win championships. But the most intriguing part of the NBA has become projecting what players could have a shot at impeding LeBron’s train-like progress toward a ring. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant: at this point, the most intriguing thing about these guys, aside from the virtues of their own games — Durant’s unconscious scoring, Rose’s battle against himself, Duncan’s sturdiness, Irving’s potential, Anthony’s limitations, Kobe’s defiance — is the way they fit into LeBron’s own legacy. Without any one of these rivals, LeBron would be less of a giant. And even though we know they will probably lose to him, we watch, because we want to see how they lose to him, and in what way they become a wrinkle in the basketball world that is LeBron James.
Canelo’s no different. The hugeness of Canelo as a concept will be fully consumed by Floyd when he beats him, and in that way Canelo will have served boxing: he’ll have made Floyd even bigger than he was before. If Canelo wins, then we have an entire alternate universe waiting to unfold; of course, we want to be there in case — just in case — that happens. And we’d all love to see a good fight. But what’s most intriguing about Canelo-Mayweather is its foregone conclusion. Underdogs give us the voyeuristic pleasure of reveling in the oppressor without needing to cheer for him; they allow us to applaud them for their service in the pursuit of something grander. Sports fans love an upstart, sure. But they love gods even more.